Milton Babbitt: Mississippi Composer

Many Mississippians have become famous in the world of music as well as in the world at large: B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and Jimmy Rogers, not to mention Elvis Presley, but one Mississippian who is a titan in the sphere of 20th century music will likely never become known outside of a select group of musicians and musicologists for whom his works constitute a mind-boggling landmark in musical composition and theory.

babbitt-77de1550dc265fcd1e5459dff8e7c0002add47cfIn all honesty, as a somewhat tone-deaf wordsmith I can’t even begin to encompass the achievement of Milton Babbitt, which to the best of my understanding (another admittedly modest attribute) lies in that arcane area of human intellect where music and mathematics merge, a slope of Parnassus I’ll never attempt, much less scale. Perhaps my fellow laymen might be sufficiently impressed to know that among his many, many awards, Babbitt received a citation from the Pulitzer judges in 1982 “for his life’s work as a distinguished and seminal American composer”. Yet for all that his work was of the most esoteric nature and his accolades are of the highest order, Milton remained a down-to-earth sort of man, fond of baseball and beer, and like any good Southern boy (he claimed Mississippi as his home), ate grits every morning of his life when he could get them. In a 2000 interview with Jason Otis of The Northside Sun, Babbitt said that his father moved to Jackson from Omaha where he was a mathematician at the University of Nebraska because C.W. Welty, Eudora’s father, made him an offer that according to Milton, “he couldn’t refuse. My being born in Philadelphia was the result of the fact that my mother was a Philadelphian and she would always go back to be with her parents when her children were born. So I and my two brothers were born in Philadelphia, but we all grew up in Jackson. My parents and a brother are buried there. Jackson was my home”

Two years later in an interview with American Public Media Babbitt said, “My early musical influences began in Jackson, Mississippi. Here I grew up, of course, and my first musical influence came from a violin teacher with whom I went to study at the age of 4. She gave me a violin, and as I practiced, I thought, this is exactly what I’d like to be doing in music—don’t ask me how or where—although I wasn’t really all that excited about the practicing. If you want an anecdote, I’ll tell you one. My teacher was a lovely and sophisticated woman who had studied with Leopold Auer.”

“I know you Yankees think that if you grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, you went around in bare feet, but we lived in a very cultivated crowd. Our public school was very sophisticated, and we were taught how to speak English in a very special way, because we were told that we were the last bastions of high culture. It was a little bit of that that brushed into everything. Anyway, my teacher, Ms. Hutchison, said one day to me, ‘Well, if you’re really interested in playing the violin, why don’t you see if this is the kind of music you might play?’ And she gave me the violin part of the Mendelsohn Violin Concerto, which I took home. Now this was a violin concerto that I had never heard performed; we didn’t have an orchestra, and remember records were very far and few between, so we didn’t have a record of the Mendelsohn Violin Concerto either. And I thought that if this was all that a violin concerto was, why couldn’t I write one of my own? So I started writing something I called ‘Violin Concerto for a Single Violin.’ I could’ve been very chic; I could’ve called it ‘Violin Concerto for Solo Violin,’ but I wasn’t that mature yet.”

“The truth of the matter is, after my experience with the violin concerto, I suddenly realized that the violin didn’t get you very far socially. Nobody really wanted you to play this damn solo violin. So I went to the local band director, the man who ran every band in town, the lovely, lovely Italian who didn’t speak very much English, but who had a very good musical background. Let me tell you, this is America, so I might as well tell you how he got there. He got to Jackson, Mississippi, from one of the smaller towns in Italy by virtue of a beautiful Mississippi girl who went to Italy to study voice—what else? That’s very American. She brought him back to Jackson where she thought he could be a big important person. Well, he was, relatively speaking. So I went to him, and I said I wanted to study the trumpet. And he said, ‘Why do you want to study the trumpet?’ I named all these jazz people of whom he had never heard who played trumpet or cornet. He said, ‘Look, you’re obviously interested in music. Play the clarinet because when you play band arrangements they have the violin parts, and you’ll learn a great deal about music, and you’ll learn a great deal more music that way.’”

“So I agreed and I took up the clarinet. That became my primary instrument. I played the clarinet and eventually saxophone. All throughout high school I played in every kind of band, everything from an imitation Guy Lombardo to an imitation Ben Pollock, which means, you know, the range from what would then be called popular music to jazz. My early influences, however, I must tell you, were largely in popular music—all kinds of popular music. And you’ll be amused to know that while I was in Jackson, Mississippi I never heard a note of country music. The country people are out there, but we’re not country people. We didn’t hear any country music. We never heard any blues either, though the blues virtually originated in Jackson, but that was not us. It didn’t have anything to do with race—by the way, that’s a great mistake—it had to do with education. We went to Davis School, which, well, you want me to tell you an anecdote about that? I’ll tell you because it involved somebody else who came from Jackson, Eudora Welty, with whom I grew up. Her father was the president of the insurance company of which my father was the actuary and vice president, so we literally grew up together. Eudora Welty went to the same public grammar school that I did, the Davis School, and you can guess which Davis that was: Jefferson Davis, of course. So anyhow, the story was that [Eudora] would go down to the ladies room where the students were in their little stalls, and our English teacher, Ms. Granbury, would come down there, and if she heard a single grammatical mistake in the conversation among these stalls, she would immediately tell them, ‘Go to my office when you have done what you have to do here.’ They would be reprimanded and disciplined.”

The Babbitt House in Jackson
The Babbitt House in Jackson

“So much of what we are is what we were,” Babbitt told Otis. “I spent my time in Jackson hearing and playing music that I would not have heard if I had grown up anywhere else. Jazz musicians from New Orleans would come up from the river and I often used to play with them on Saturday nights. Our music teacher didn’t play records for us because there weren’t any records to play. We learned to read music and to play music and to listen to music. It was extraordinary. It’s not the kind of musical education I would have gotten in New York, but then I was exposed to a great deal of jazz and popular music that I might not have been exposed to elsewhere.”

Many thanks to Barbara McLaughlin, former resident of the Babbitt House at 1117 Kenwood for help with this article.

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